The Sinking of the R.M.S. Leinster

People on board

William Birch

BIRCH, William, Captain

William Birch

William Birch was born on the 10th February 1857 in Dublin to Edwin Birch and Eliza Worn, the third of five children. Both parents ran successful businesses as well as being respected members of their community. Edwin was born in 1817 in Mold, Flintshire, close to the Welsh border with Lancashire and came to Ireland with his brother William, probably in the 1840s. In 1851 the firm of ‘Comyns, Birch and Co. Woollen Traders’ was set up in College Green in Dublin, later as ‘Edwin Birch’ moving to St Andrew Street. In the 1880s he was Agent for the firm that provided the fittings and regalia to the Masonic and Orange Lodges, and to the Lord Mayor of Dublin. In 1848 Edwin married Eliza Worn, daughter of William Worn of Dawson Street who in 1808 had set up a business in ‘Hair Cutting and Perfumery’. By 1847 Eliza had set up her own business in the same line at No 1 Molesworth Street across the road from where her brother Richard had taken over from their father, and had recently been appointed ‘Hair Cutter and Perfumer’ to the Queen.

Edwin Birch appears to have been very much involved in his wife’s business, as well as his own Woollen trade, in 1864 designing a steam-powered hairbrush “giving the head a most delightful feeling of coolness and freshness.” The business also expanded to an extensive branch on the Quinsborough Road in Bray, where Edwin also converted the Turkish Baths into “a most comfortable Assembly Room.” He was praised for his efforts in improving Bray and in Dublin he was Churchwarden of St Ann’s Church in Dawson Street. The family were living in Sandymount when William was born in 1857. Eliza died in 1888 and Edwin in 1899, and both are buried in Mount Jerome cemetery.

William went to sea in 1871 at the age of fifteen, apprenticed to the Ismay Company in Liverpool. In 1888 he was Third Mate on the paddle steamer RMS Ulster, one of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company’s fleet of ships on the Mail Service between Holyhead and Kingstown. From then until 1893 he worked with the CDSPCo rising to First Mate. From 1896 he was Master of the SS Express, also owned by the CDSPCo, trading and carrying passengers between Dublin and Liverpool and Dublin and Belfast.  From 1902 he was back on the Mail Service between Holyhead and Kingstown, Master of RMS Ulster. In the 1911 census he was Master of the RMS Connaught.

Running parallel to his maritime career he also had a full personal life. In 1879 he married Louisa Smith in Liverpool and the family lived at Rawcliffe Road, Walton, Liverpool. William and Louisa had ten children, seven daughters and three sons, all of whom were baptised Catholic although William was Church of Ireland.
William Birch

Three of the girls were born in Dublin, in 1890, 1891 and 1893. The address on their birth certificates was ‘Anna Mount, Mulgrave Street’ in Kingstown, but Thom’s Directory has no entry for Birch at that address during those years. The 1911 UK census shows Louisa and eight of the children in Holyhead, in a house named ‘Sycamore’ on Gors Road.

The eldest daughter, Catherine, gave her occupation as ‘Assistant Teacher’, while the eldest son, Edwin, was a ‘Shipping Clerk’. He subsequently emigrated to Canada and then Detroit. The second son, William, then aged twenty three, was a ‘Mariner 1st Mate’, and received his Masters Certificate the following year. Both he and his father received the WW1 Mercantile Marine Medal and the British War Medal. In the 1911 census the three youngest children were still at school, including the youngest, Charles Richard, born in 1904.

On the day of the sinking of the RMS Leinster Captain Birch was on the bridge and he remained there after the torpedo had struck the ship. When the second torpedo hit Birch was thrown overboard into the sea, suffering injuries to his legs and face. He was dragged into an already overcrowded lifeboat and within two hours the destroyer HMS Lively was alongside. However the lifeboat capsized throwing many back into the sea, including William Birch. His body was never recovered, but his name is recorded on the family grave in Mount Jerome cemetery.

When his will, which had been written in December 1917, was read it transpired that he had left only part of his property to his wife and children. He had also left stocks and shares to a Miss Caroline Barnard in Dublin as well as the residue of his assets to be held in trust by her for his son Charles. As his total effects left in the will reached close to £1600 this was no small matter. Miss Barnard and her family were known to the Birch family and two of the girls had stayed with the Barnards, but the relationship had been a cause of tension in the Birch family. Louisa Birch defended her position in court against Caroline Barnard and the newspaper reports indicate that the judge was favourable to her. While the final judgement does not seem to have been published, probate was granted in September 1919 to Harriette Irene Birch, one of his daughters. Nothing is known of the son Charles.


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